Amazones d'Afrique is the first all-female supergroup of West Africa. Inspired by the formidable and mysterious warriors of Dahomey, some of the greatest West African singers and musicians have come together to fight against violence towards women. Their debut album Republique Amazone,is a mighty tool in that fight.
The Amazones d’Afrique are a funky supergroup of Malian singers: Kandia Kouyaté, Mariam Doumbia (of Amadou & Mariam), Mamani Keita, Rokia Koné, Mariam Koné), plus Grammy award winning Angelique Kidjo from Benin and powerful young Nigerian singer-songwriter Nneka.
Their name pays homage both to the Dahomey Amazons, women warriors who, back in the 17th century, roamed what is now Benin, protecting west African borders, and the Amazones de Guinée, a female military band formed in 1961 and the first all-female pop music group in Guinea.
But these modern day Amazones are defending modern day causes. On their debut album République Amazone they sing out against female genital mutilation (FGM), forced marriage, prejudice and female oppression, and in favour of equality and empowerment.
The project was the brainchild of French producer Valerie Malot (3DFamily), who, having worked on music as part of the Stop Ebola Africa campaign realised that musicians were as good, if not better, than politicians in getting messages across to the general public. But they needed to build the band around a universal theme.
"The band is made up of different singers from different backgrounds and they have different audiences," she says. "So we had to find something that connected and united them. And that was the cause of fighting for women's rights, and against violence. Because it affects all women, not just those on the African continent, but in the rest of the world."
Malot wanted a modern sound, something that would carry the collective's message to the dancefloor. Producer Liam Farrell aka Doctor L came on board, bringing distorted guitar and sampling of talking drums and basslines to the mix. With intoxicating results.
The women use a strong symbol of disobedience in their signature song ‘I Play the Kora’, which was released as a single last autumn and features Madina Mdiaye on the 24-string traditional instrument.
"The kora is a very sacred instrument and only men play it,” says Mamani Keita, known as ‘The Rebel’ in her native Mali for denouncing FGM in her songs. She protected her daughter and nieces from family members who sought to continue the practice.
“I really congratulate Madina Ndiaye. She was the first woman to play the kora and I hope other women will follow her. It’s time for women to rise up. Whatever men are capable of, women can do too," Keita continues. "I’m very proud to be part in this project and to defend women’s rights because we women in Africa have suffered too much."
Profits from the sale of I Play the Kora are all going to support the Panzi Foundation led by Doctor Mukwege in Bukavu, DRC. The foundation has provided support and treatment to more than 80,000 girls and women, over half of whom are survivors of sexual violence.
The album title, République Amazone (Amazon republic), suggests these women want to go it alone but nothing could be further from the truth.
“There’s a bit of provocation in the title Amazon Republic," says young Malian singer and musician Mariam Koné, “but it’s also a love letter to men. We’re inviting you to love us, to fight alongside us for our rights.”
“This is not anti-men, otherwise I wouldn’t have been part of it,” says the young, outspoken singer Nneka on the line from Lagos in Nigeria.
She contributed the song La Femme et Sa Valise (the woman and her suitcase), which explores feelings like female solidarity and self-respect.
‘When things go wrong we’ll still be here,’ she sings.
Very active in trying to change the way Africa is portrayed in the west, Nneka was drawn into the collective after a chance meeting with Tiken Jah Fakoly’s regional producer in Cote d’Ivoire. She toured with the collective last summer and joins them again this summer in Europe.
“I think the most important thing that brings us together is love: love for our continent, love for our community, love towards other women, love towards ourselves. And self respect which is very important and something that many African women do not know.”
She says women who're raised in certain cultures and traditions, including polygamous marriages, are deprived of “opportunities to express self love". While she has not had to confront FGM first hand, she's no stranger to violence and abuse.
“That is my motive for being involved: domestic violence, sexual abuse and also self-inflicted abuse," she explains. “When you are a victim you think there’s always someone who is the perpetrator, but somehow along the line you can also become the perpetrator of abuse. I think it’s very important that other women get to hear about that I can encourage them to be strong, to love themselves more and get out of that situation as quick as we can.”
Nneka says she’s also benefiting from working with some of the older women from the West African griot tradition such as diva Kandia Kouyate.
“Most of them have been into this music way before me, most of them are from families of griots, so to be part of this project, to learn from them, to see actually ‘Nneka you’re not the only one who has something to say, you’re not the only one out there talking about these crucial important topics, you’re not the only who’s tracking the issue of change'. That has empowered me a lot. To get to know these women individually and learn from them.
Nneka also discovered the sounds of the Sahel for the first time, and it’s influenced her forthcoming album.
“The Malian style or Senegalese way of making music is completely different from the way I learn. It depends on a lot of pentatonic scales, minor chords, it’s like an amazing approach to making music and I’ve learned from that and I’m using that for my own stuff.”
Les Amazones d'Afrique collective are touring Europe and Morocco in July, November and plan a US tour in 2018.
They also have a crowdfunding project to raise 40,000 euros to finance 30 extra beds at the Panzi foundation.
You can also back their bid to get nominated for the M.I.T. Media Lab Disobedience Award.